In Virginia, an apple-cheeked girl with a Minnie Mouse bow in her hair has been missing since April 23. She is 14, bespectacled, and was last seen in an outfit fashioned of head-to-toe heather gray. Her name [has been redacted] and she is black, and because she is black, the national public was only informed of her disappearance via Twitter — a full five days after it occurred.
We are feverishly retweeting for her. But by now, we have to wonder what our retweets are worth.
The first hours after a child goes missing are the most critical. Every passing minute takes with it small sips of our optimism — and we are the only ones who even bother with optimism, we who can look into the faces of black and brown girls we don’t know and see something of ourselves.
We are all we have. Daily, we make each other’s empathy enough. We spread it thin and wear it raw. We tear it and pass the scraps down the aisle. But we always seem to learn of what lurks too late. We protest and our wails ring tinny ’round the choir stand. By the time our dissent projects, evil has already gained colossal ground.
I do not believe many disappearances are sudden. They are fastidiously planned, painstakingly executed — and even when the grown, hulking captors are not quite as clever as the welterweight girls they take, they wield the advantage of forethought. Often, they have watched and waited, perhaps walked with or ridden with, texted, even fed, the children they intend to steal. The children — the innocents — even those with the sharpest of wits and the bravest of faces — are simply no match.
Of course we do not expect them to be, though one would never know it by how slowly the public acts when the children who’ve been taken are black and brown.
By the time they take our girls, the captors have also studied the rest of us, long enough to know how we — their parents, their communities, their government, and their media — will respond to losing them. They know whether that response will pose a threat; in turn, they act only as brazenly or covertly as necessary.
In the northern Nigerian state of Borno, close to 200 schoolgirls are missing. They were taken at night, but their captors, all members of the extremist group Boko Haram, could just as easily have attacked by day. It would seem they have been building to this. Boko Haram slaughtered 59 schoolboys in February. They have razed entire villages. And now, they are stealing and selling and ravaging teen girls by the hundreds.
Because the girls are black and halfway around the world, I (and likely much of America) first learned of them via social media, after they had been in the capture of rapists and murderers for a 12 full days. And it is only the constant, viral pressure of people who can compel themselves to care that their increasingly harrowing journey is now being covered by international media.
But few are sure what is accurate to report — and that is by design. Alexis Okeowo writes at The New Yorker that Nigerian military nakedly lied about having recovered “most of the girls” in the hours following their disappearance:
A day later, the military retracted its claim; it had not actually rescued any of the girls. And the number that the government said was missing, just over a hundred, was less than half the number that parents and school officials counted: according to their tally, two hundred and thirty-four girls were taken.
In truth, the only escapees were young women who took matters into their own hands and, aided only by adrenaline and auspice, ran.
If it is the number of girls who are gone that staggers us Americans — if we cannot fathom armed gunmen driving 234 girls deep into the forest and keeping them for weeks without even the mildest risk of retribution — it is only because we have not been paying close enough attention.
Bad men (and bad women) do not become this brazen overnight. Centuries of history, both personal and public, embolden them. History whispers: Violence subdues opposition. Apathy is an ally to evil. Governments that do not move swiftly to apprehend those who steal and torture their citizens will move too slowly to catch us. Big guns and ample ammunition intimidate even the most loving of parents — and if they are not turned away by the rumor or sight of our weapons, we need only use them. Every silent day deepens a disappearance.
It is possible to lose hundreds of black girls at a school in a single night for much the same reason that, every day, here in America, 400 black children are reported missing: historically, too little has been done about it. And when we move it is with the torpor of slowly waking giants.
Our children deserve better than they’ve gotten — and perhaps insurgents and kidnappers understand this better than we do. If they are leaning against a towering legacy of inaction, we can only fight back by toppling the tower. We can only win by being quicker than they are. We must cycle through online awareness and outrage faster and transmute that momentum.
The girls in Chibok were taken nine days after the fourteen-year-old went missing in Virginia. Thousands of black children have disappeared here and abroad in that short time — and the critical, most early hours of searching have since been lost. The names of many will remain forever unknown to us; the faces of others will only reach the eyes of those with Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook accounts. To the extent that any large scale action is being taken on their behalf, we are advancing it, with our shares and retweets and reblogs. We are digitizing the door-to-door flier and amplifying untelevised Amber Alerts.
But there is more to be done, far more than hand-wringing and haranguing one another about how little society cares for the black and brown. We care for each other — and we have managed it while jointly enduring our own horrors. Care has gotten us through chattel slavery. Care sustained us through an underground syndicate of unreported lynchings. Care has led to reconciliation decades after genocidal slaughter.
We care for each other. It is imperative that we continue to. There is as much power in sustaining that care as there is in any insurrectionist’s plot to eradicate us. Often, it is all we have. But it burns. It has been known to light fires under dictators, known to turn enslavement camps to ash. Care is an oil that never fails to ignite.